The Outrigger Diaspora

Paul Raven @ 04-10-2011

I’ve filed the 100 Year Starship symposium in the steadily swelling folder of “events that make me wish I was located in the States, or that telepresence was a bit more stable and functional”. Athena Andreadis was one of the many speakers, and I’ll look forward to the full version of her talk appearing in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, an organisation I should really get round to joining. In the meantime, here’s a few snippets from her post-mortem blog post that sum up why I pay attention to her:

… there is still no firm sense of limits and limitations.  This persistence of triumphalism may doom the effort: if we launch starships, whether of exploration or settlement, they won’t be conquerors; they will be worse off than the Polynesians on their catamarans, the losses will be heavy and their state at planetfall won’t resemble anything depicted in Hollywood SF.

Yes, this. Look, I’m as much a sucker for the macroarchitectural fantasies of high space opera as the next person, but it only takes a cursory knowledge of the space programs we’ve had so far to know that the universe beyond the gravity well is, to quote Phil Anselmo, fucking hostile. And that’s before you even start thinking about agressive (or simply defensive) alien civilisations or dangerous new biomes inimical to human life-chemistry. We live on a merest mere speck in an ocean of infinite breadth and depth; to set out without a respectful fear of that infinitude is pure hubris.

Like building a great cathedral, it will take generations of steady yet focused effort to build a functional starship.  It will also require a significant shift of our outlook if we want to have any chance of success.  Both the effort and its outcome will change us irrevocably.

This is pretty much how I’m looking at transhumanism these days; long-range goals are great things to have, but they’re no substitute for realistic and achievable steps along the route of progress. And I’m not sure that we can simply focus on the technological side of things and assume that great strides there will solve our social and economic issues as a by-product; technology and science cannot be discretely set aside from our other projects. The out-bound diaspora of humanity is dependent on its surviving the next handful of decades, and most of the hazards attendant on that timeframe will not be solved by technology alone.

In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving trash on an uninhabited planet.  Our first alien encounter, beyond Earth just as it was on Earth, may be with ourselves viewed through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.

I read the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic earlier this year, and it struck me then that the planet is already spattered with Zones. But they’re Zones where the Other that left them is Us: they’re the squatter shanties and favelas that have accreted around big cities in the developing world, where the people pick over the stuff we’ve just tossed aside in favour of the next new shiny, where they make do with the cast-offs of yesteryear, and where the street finds new uses for things. A world full of aliens biologically identical to us: plenty of opportunities to practice – if we’re willing – the diplomacy skill-sets we’ll need, should we ever happen across another species on the infinite ocean.

 


Martian water: back on again

Paul Raven @ 05-08-2011

I’ve lost count of the number of times that the scientific consensus on whether or not there’s liquid-phase water on Mars has changed, and that’s just within the span of me blogging here at Futurismic (so, six years or thereabouts). But it looks like we just flipped back toward certainty, as images from NASA’s Mars Recon Orbiter show what may well be streams of salt-saturated water flowing down slopes during the Martian equivalent of summer:

More than a thousand dark trails were observed running down some slopes in Mars’s southern hemisphere during warm periods of the year, fading in the autumn.

There are more trails on the warmer, sun-facing parts of the planet, which would be consistent with water that flows in summer and freezes in winter.

Researchers from the University of Arizona said that salty water was the “best explanation” for the markings, which are between half a metre and five metres wide and run for hundreds of metres down some craters.

Although the images do not provide definitive proof of salt water on Mars, scientists claim that temperatures on the sun-facing areas of the planet’s surface would be too warm for frozen carbon dioxide and too cold for pure water.

Science being science, of course, this is merely well-informed speculation based on accumulated evidence, and the boffins are at pains to point out that more research and observation is required before anyone can talk in terms of true certainty.

So I’ll say it again: let’s just go there already.


Karl Schroeder’s Space Shuttle send-off

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2011

Karl Schroeder is guest emcee at Charlie Stross’s rostrum while the latter is a-travellin’, which is fine news in my world – Schroeder has been quiet of late (how dare a writer I like not provide me free brainfood on a regular basis!), but when he speaks he says powerful things. Powerful things like this:

Not only had the combination of Space Shuttle (most expensive yet most useless spacecraft ever constructed, a monstrous money-pit that cost $200 billion to develop, $1.5 billion for every launch, demanded a ground crew of over 3000 and had nowhere to go–and International Space Station (also fantastically expensive and in the wrong orbit to do any meaningful research) sucked all the oxygen out of space exploration for the average Joe; not only have most of my readers never witnessed a human being go beyond Earth orbit; but NASA’s Darwinian selection process for its astronaut corps has, for thirty years now, guaranteed that only men and women who agree to toe the party line will get into space. In order to become an astronaut, you have to accept, in a Winston Smith sort of way, that real space travel is barred to us. –That somehow, Apollo never happened or was some sort of fluke, and that the best that humanity can do now is clamber to the edge of that vastness we once soared through, and blink at it nervously. Because the Shuttle and ISS are both emperors without clothes, and if anybody involved in the projects actually admitted it, we all might collectively wake up, and demand something better.

All of which is why I’m heaving a vast sigh of relief that thirty years of mediocrity is finally ending this week. Farewell, Space Shuttle. I’m not going to miss you.

Me neither… though I prudently kept my opinion on the downlow yesterday, because there’s a whole lot of national identity stuff tied up with America and the Space Shuttle program, and applauding the Shuttle’s demise is like poking a bear with a sharp stick. But that bear really needs poking; so many of the laments I noticed yesterday seem to totally overlook the economic and philosophical shortcomings of the Shuttle program, interpreting it on a very basic symbolic level only.

Much in the way that some people interpret any criticism of the Israeli government as inherently anti-Semitic, criticising the Shuttle program is perceived as either anti-American or anti-space-exploration, or sometimes both at once. This irrationally defensive attitude highlights the lack of purpose that has echoed at the heart of the American space narrative for so long, like rapping your knuckles on a venerated statue and hearing the hollowness within as its worshippers gasp at your blasphemy.

When dogma is all you have left, it’s time to redefine your relationship to god.

[ For what it’s worth, I think you can have your pie and eat it; I grew up watching the Space Shuttle launches on TV, and they shaped my consciousness in a huge way; I can also appreciate the symbolic – and technological – sublimity of the Shuttle itself. But it was always more token than tool; if we’re serious about going beyond the gravity well – and I believe we should be – we need to ask ourselves why as well as how. The answer to the former will inform and qualify the answer to the latter. ]


Black hole sun: is there life beyond the event horizon?

Paul Raven @ 11-04-2011

A bit of light reading for the hard sf and cosmology geeks in the audience; via Next Big Future, arXiv has a paper which argues that life – indeed, even complex civilisations – may “inhabit the interiors of supermassive black holes, being invisible from the outside and basking in the light of the central singularity and orbital photons”. Stephen Baxter and Greg Egan, eat your hearts out. 🙂

A little closer to home (and also via Next Big Future), there’s a new start-up kicking around in Silicon Valley. Which isn’t news in itself, of course, but rather than designing the latest portable device or niche-focussed social network, MoonEx has scored a NASA contract that could be worth US$10m with a business model based on building autonomous robotic rovers designed to mine the Moon’s regolith for the increasingly rare metallic elements that our electronic systems depend upon. No doubt they’ll be keeping a close eye on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy.

[ Any Monday in which you can squeeze a Soundgarden song into a post title is, by definition, a good day. ]


To infinity, and beyond! More inspirational space stuff

Paul Raven @ 15-02-2011

Yesterday’s scale-of-space post gathered comments pretty quickly, at least in part due to my own failure to define my terms properly… but it’s a reminder that space still stirs up the imagination like little else, whether one’s imaginings be favourable or dismissive.

And so, here’s some more imagination fuel! As mentioned before, space seems to be clambering back onto the futurist Zeitgeist train of late – a response to the grim economic certainties of the foreseeable future (such as it is)? We all need something to reach for in our dreams, I guess… and if you’re gonna reach, why not stretch to your utmost? The Technology Applications Assessment Team of NASA’S Johnson Space Centre aren’t limiting themselves to anything less than affordable and achievable concepts for manned deep-space missions [via MetaFilter]:

… six technology applications that they are focusing on: satellite servicing, ISRU on the Moon, a SBSP demo, solar electric propulsion vehicle, propellant depots, and the Multi-Mission Space Exploration Vehicle (MMSEV).

[…]

The Nautilus-X MMSEV is intended as a reusable in-space vehicle for cis-lunar and deep space missions. It would offer a sizable volume to sustain a crew of six and hold enough supplies to sustain a two year mission.

Radiation mitigation strategies, such as creating safe zones with water and H2-slush tanks, are being investigated. It is “capable of utilizing variety of Mission-Specific Propulsion Units [integrated in LEO, semi-autonomously]”.

Most strikingly, it would include a ring centrifuge to provide partial gravity for maintaining crew health.

Caveat: “affordable” is a very relative term:

Estimated cost and time: “$3.7 B DCT & Implementation 64 months”

Ouch. Still, pipedreams they may be, but every human achievement was an act of the imagination first, right? But uninformed imagination is just, well, making stuff up… so get yourself over to Centauri Dreams and check out a suggested reading list for people interested in the possibilities of interstellar travel.

Last but not least, and in the name of providing at least one answer to the “sure, we could go there, but what’s the point?” retort, Brian Wang of Next Big Future has excerpts from (and a link to) a speculative PDF report on human population curves after escaping the hard resource limits of Gaia:

NASA studies (Johnson and Holbrow, 1977) confirmed that it was technically possible to build large vista space habitats in free space, essentially anywhere in the solar system (out to the asteroid belt if only solar power were used) with up to about 4 million people in each. In O’Neill’s habitat model the space citizens would live on the inside surfaces of radiation shielded spheres, cylinders, or torus’s which would be rotated to provide Earth normal gravity. The prohibitive Earth launch costs for these massive structures could be off set by using lunar and asteroid materials. Construction of (Glaser, 1974) space solar power satellites by the space colonists would make the project economically viable. Economic break even for the O’Neill-Glaser model was calculated to be about 35 years after which very large profits would be incurred. The result would have been a solar powered Earth and millions of people living in space by the beginning of the twenty first century.

Recently the O’Neill-Glaser model was recalculated (Detweiler and Curreri, 2008) to find the financially optimum habitat size. For simplicity only the habitat size was changed and the financial costs of money and energy updated, while keeping the original 1975 technological assumptions. In order to make the model financially viable the workers must live in space, space resources must be utilized and the community must build Space Solar Power Satellites, SSPS. A net present value plot showing the original calculations (Johnson and Holbrow, 1977) building 10,000 person torus habitats compared to calculations for the habitat size that optimizes costs. Starting the program with smaller habitats (64 – 2000 persons) results in peak costs that are reduced by about 75 percent and one third reduction in time for financial break even (year 25 for the optimized model).

Wildly speculative? Sure it is. So was putting a man into orbit, and not all that long ago.


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